Nearly 50 years after his assassination, John Kennedy's impact lives on in the memories of those he inspired--and those he frustrated. Elements of that legacy emerge in people's stories and reflections, as well as the inflections of their voices when they speak of him.
People like former Vice President Walter Mondale, who admired Kennedy and served on an advisory group during JFK's administration. In 1963, then-Minnesota Attorney General Mondale served as the chair of Kennedy's 1964 reelection campaign in the state. He was holding a campaign strategy meeting when his assistant interrupted with the first news bulletins from Dallas.
I still think about him and that sense of urgency, the way he was able to take what we consider to be the noble causes of social justice and make them appealing by the way he carried himself, by the way he made compelling arguments for social causes... There still is a horrible sense of loss nearly 50 years later. We were robbed.
People like author and syndicated radio host Michael Medved, who once adored John Kennedy. But after researching his book, The Shadow Presidents, Medved became disillusioned.
I don't think Jack Kennedy deserved the adulation he received - and still receives - from the American public. It always stuns me that polls of our greatest presidents rank Kennedy quite high... Most striking about the Kennedy inner-circle is that everybody was part of this grand imposture, such as conveying the idea that Kennedy was a devout Catholic. Not. And that he was mad crazy in love with his beautiful wife. And was an ideal family man. And was the picture of health. It just wasn't true, but the American people were led to believe it all was.
Medved and Mondale are just two or the nearly 90 people I interviewed for my book on Kennedy - his life, assassination and legacy. Those looking for new assassination conspiracy theories or salacious details of JFK's sex life will be disappointed. In fact, they should not buy the book; there is no mention of either because more than enough words have been written about both.
Readers looking for insight into the man, the myth and the legend will be rewarded with fascinating new stories and observations--told by those who liked him and those who did not, and from those who knew him well and those who briefly encountered him:
• President Kennedy came within minutes of a meeting in the Oval Office with an individual armed with not one, but two guns.
As former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, William ("Bill") Harvey, sometimes referred to as "America's James Bond," told a Senate committee: Then-CIA Operations Director Richard Helms "took me to the White House and we were waiting outside the Oval Office. The door was guarded by a Secret Service man. We waited a few minutes and Helms came over to me and whispered in my ear, 'Bill, you're not carrying a weapon, are you?'"
And Harvey whispered back, "Of course I'm carrying a weapon. I always carry a weapon."
So Helms goes to the Secret Service man and says, "This man with me is one of our top agents at the Agency and he tells me he is armed."
The Secret Service guy turns pale and goes over the Harvey and says, "Mr. Harvey, you're not going in to see the President with a weapon."
Harvey reaches under his arm, pulls out a 45 and a shoulder holster, and gives it to the Secret Service agent. So they sit for two or three more minutes. And Helms had a terrible idea. He went over and whispered to Harvey, "Bill, you don't have any other weapons, do you?"
And Harvey whispered back, "Of course I do. I always have a back-up weapon." And the Secret Service guy took a derringer off of Harvey's ankle holster.
• There is one person, Priscilla Johnson McMillan, an author and Russian expert, who knew both John Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Ms. McMillan worked for then-Senator Kennedy in 1953 as a researcher and later, in 1959, as a journalist in Moscow. She interviewed Oswald, then a 19-year-old Marine who wanted to defect to the Soviet Union.
"That evening we sat in my room for several hours while he told me his story. He seemed lonely and very, very young - lost in a situation he did not understand. I felt sorry for him. A day or so later, I filed a story:"
With his suit of charcoal gray flannel, dark tie and tan cashmere sweater, Lee looks, and sounds, like Joe College with a slight Southern drawl. But his life hasn't been that of a typical college boy... Even though Russian officials have warned him Soviet citizenship is not easy to obtain, Lee already refers to the Soviet government as "my government." "But," says Lee, "even if I am not accepted, on no account will I go back to the United States. I shall remain here, if necessary, as a resident alien."
• Contrary to many reports, one of JFK's closest friends, Charles Bartlett, believes JFK had no foreboding sense of death before going to Dallas.
I talked to him the night before he left for Texas. Something nudged me to call him to say goodbye. I didn't normally do that. I called about nine o'clock at night and found him in a very, very good mood. He gave no hint of foreboding. He had often talked to me about how easy it would be to kill a president. He believed an assassin would have no problem if he (the assassin) really wanted to do it. But this fatalistic sense was not on his mind the night before he left for Texas.
John Kennedy was witty, intelligent, curious and charming. His public appearances and private encounters demonstrated those characteristics. He also was self-conscious, fiercely protective of his public image, and deeply concerned about how history would judge his presidency.
The famous line in his inaugural address urging Americans to, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," inspired people to pursue public service, not necessarily politics, as an honorable profession.
As Bartlett remarks, "He really did make a difference in the world. I think that is where legacy and inspiration meld."
Dean R. Owen, a Seattle-area writer, is the author of November 22, 1963, Reflections on the Life, Assassination and Legacy of John F. Kennedy, published by Skyhorse Publishing.
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